Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

The cyclist who knocked down the 3-year-old boy in a park connector is an idiot.

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Ouch 😥

If you haven’t been keeping up with the news, a speeding cyclist recently knocked down a 3-year-old boy who was jogging for the first time at a park connector (PCN) with his father. The father estimates that the cyclist was riding at 40 kmh (!) at the time. The accident knocked out one of the boy’s teeth and left him with bruises, a swollen lip and a 1 cm cut on his chin. And here’s the thing that really enrages me:

He (the father) had asked the cyclist why he did not stop.

The latter said his bike had no brakes and his feet were clipped to the pedals.

WHAT?! This is what we save vulgar language for (but I’ll try to restrain myself). He was probably riding a fixie (YouTube video on how to stop), and stopping distance at that speed with no brakes is really, really far (see, for example, this video at 0:32) especially if the cyclist didn’t know what he was doing (likely).

I’m an avid cyclist (~115 km in the last 5 days, woohoo!), and I ride mostly on PCNs. There are peak periods on PCNs — weekends, evenings, and so on — when families are out with little children who aren’t really aware that there are idiotic cyclists sharing the paths with them. Many cyclists are sensible, but some are somewhat lacking in common sense.

So, here are a few tips for cyclists on the PCNs.

(For the rest of you, just be very careful! Hold on to your children! Keep to one side!)

Tips for cyclists

1. Go fast only when the path is completely clear.

I’ll admit that I break the nParks speed limit (15 kmh) pretty often. But I only do it when I am absolutely certain that the path is clear. When there are human beings in front of you, slow down, especially if there’s a chance that they will suddenly swerve into your path.

Watch out especially for:
– toddlers
– teenagers who might playfully push their friend(s) directly into your path
– joggers who might execute U-turns into your path
– cyclists who aren’t paying attention

Even if you’re riding slowly, be very careful.

I was once cycling with my girlfriend, and we saw a toddler playing ahead of us. We slowed way down (jogging speed).  The mother of the toddler was telling him to be careful, and as she did that, the kid swerved right into our paths. It was a narrow miss. Even at that speed, you still have to give allowance for some stopping distance. God help you if your brakes are worn. (I have nice fancy disc brakes! :D)

2. Be aware that your bell can make people panic

When approaching joggers/walkers from behind, be prepared for people to jump into your path as a reflex, especially if your bell is loud or if you ring it too late.

I’ve found that shouting ahead (e.g. “Hello! Can I pass please?”) tends to give better results, since people can register both your position and speed with a little bit more ease. Saying “thank you” will also sometimes get you a cheerful response!

3. Keep your eyes open, all the time

I understand that some of us ride to near-exhaustion, and it gets very tempting to put your head down (i.e. staring at the pedals) at that point. Please, avoid doing that. Squishy humans can come out of nowhere, and you really, really do not want to be surprised by a kid running out from the bushes.

4. Keep to the left — but not all the time

There are certain PCNs where it makes sense to keep to the right, rather than the left. Exercise your judgement.

5. If you’re going as fast as a car, use the roads

Pls. AND GET BRAKES.

I could have used the IB’s Theory of Knowledge: my unnecessarily traumatic intellectual journey

I stumbled across one of the May 2015 Theory of Knowledge (ToK) essay titles recently, and found myself wishing that someone had asked me questions like this when I was a teenager:

There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (ibo.org)

I could have saved myself years of intellectual and spiritual turmoil, just by framing the questions I had about Christianity differently. Instead of asking questions framed by an atheist point of view (Is God real? Was Jesus really that special?), I could have asked questions framed by centuries of Christian struggle with faith and rationality (What is the nature of God? How far is logic relevant to my experience of God?).


My story (the short version)

After barely surviving my A-levels (I’ll need to blog about that soon), I decided that I would use my time in the army as a chance to prepare for university, so that I would not need to struggle through any examination ever again. So, I started reading everything I could lay my hands upon (thank you, National Library Board).

At that time, I had been in church for all of my 18 years, with my faith grounded upon what some might call a “fundamentalist” view of the world and the Bible. I believed that God was essentially an omnipotent (absolutely powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and benevolent (absolutely loving) being. I believed that the Bible was inerrant, and that we should interpret it literally.

When I encountered the first objections to this version of the Christian faith, my young, fragile, and immature faith was completely and utterly shaken. It was, ironically, by reading Carl Jung that I first saw an objection to my faith. I see this as ironic because Jung is now viewed as a key figure not only in psychoanalysis, but also as the father (in an indirect way) of the New Age movement — another (non-homogeneous type of) “faith” that can collapse under close scrutiny. I eventually left my church, partially because I could no longer reconcile my intellectual conclusions with my faith.

I now see that leaving the church was an unnecessary step to take.

I did not realise that there were different flavours of rationality, and that there were people of faith with robust intellectual lives. Our epistemologies (incomplete definition: how we decide what knowledge is valid) can be different. The assumptions that Karen Armstrong, Philip Yancey, and Christopher Hitchens make about “knowledge” are all slightly different.

The questions that they ask are never neutral.


In praise of the ToK syllabus

This brings me back to the IB’s Theory of Knowledge program. The questions that they ask can potentially give students a way to reconcile faith and rationality, if they receive the appropriate guidance at the appropriate times. The ToK syllabus planners probably realised this, which may have been the reason they added faith, intuition, memory, and imagination as “ways of knowing” in their updated syllabus.

Of course, if a student is guided by a teacher who is firmly atheist, the information fed to the student will always tend to nourish an atheist point of view. No matter how we try to systematize a syllabus, the human element of education can never be taken away. But this is exactly why I find myself admiring the ToK syllabus — even a stubbornly atheist teacher will have to admit that there are different kinds of knowing, some of which support and nourish intellectually mature versions of faith, especially if a student asks (pro-tip: don’t be shy about asking questions in class).

Admittedly, a stubbornly atheist teacher will always be able to find a way to destroy any religious view — there’s that human aspect of education again.


ToK tuition

I’ve been receiving requests over the past few months to tutor students in ToK, but I’ve also been trying to find ways to avoid the subject because of my unfamiliarity with the syllabus. But the more I read about it, the more I feel like I should be accepting these requests. This is a subject that gives teachers and students a chance to ask questions that are relevant even away from the realm of academia — and that’s something worth getting to.

Admittedly, I am new to this field. So, to prospective ToK students, here’s the deal.

Things I can offer to ToK students:
– guidance with essay structures, logic, and argumentation
– guidance on research (where to find resources, what to read)
– critique of work already done (especially with grammar, style, logic)

Things I cannot offer:
– any guarantees of an A grade
– resources for you to plagiarise (i.e. I will not do your work for you!)


A final word

I do not attempt to indoctrinate my students. As I’ve said before, I prefer to present my students with the relevant information, and to give them the tools to make up their own minds. If you’re a parent looking to engage my tuition services, just let me know your concerns, and we’ll work through them together.

Alamak! GE2016 coming! (A tongue in cheek guide to writing “wall of text” essays for the general reader)

tl;dr — use tl;dr paragraphs, deal with all the evidence, keep to a single idea per paragraph, don’t assume prior knowledge (assume that your reader is an idiot), end with a bang.

Bonus: this is also relevant to O- and A-level students. The principles of writing are the same, just avoid the acronym (tl;dr) and snark.

1. If you plan on posting a wall of text, always, always have a tl;dr.

Your tl;dr paragraph is necessary. People online don’t have infinite attention spans. In fact, our attention spans have been shrinking.

Your tl;dr paragraph should contain the brilliance of your entire essay. There have been complaints that the tl;dr phenomenon has been dumbing down online discourse (online discussion), but the tl;dr has actually had a long and storied history. You may recall from your GP lessons a thing called the “introductory paragraph“. This is your tl;dr paragraph.

The reader should be able to guess at the purpose of your wall of text from this paragraph. If he can’t, he may just lose interest and not read your essay.

2. Deal with all the relevant evidence

When you are trying to decide on which shiny bicycle to buy, you don’t go around only comparing prices. You look at what you get for your money —  Does it have good parts? Will I be comfortable on it? Will it make me look like a clown? — and so on.

Likewise, in your wall of text, avoid looking only at limited evidence. Look at ALL the relevant evidence. For example, if you want to buy a certain bicycle, you cannot only look at the benefits it might bring you, you also have to look at the benefits the next bicycle might bring you — and all their drawbacks.

Please do the same for political parties. As your teacher might have once said, please give me a balanced argument!

3. One idea, one paragraph

This is a rule that is frequently broken, but still serves as a good guideline.

The purpose of this rule is crucial to understand: readers are stupid cows (but not you, heheh!) who can’t keep a huge amount of information in their heads. Breaking your wall of text into smaller bricks of text will help your reader understand and retain information.

You see how I’ve broken down my tips into numbered sections? Ah.

4. Assume a stupid reader (really, not you)

(This tip comes from my JC Economics teacher!)

While you may be an expert in political philosophy, your reader almost certainly won’t be. If you use a set of words in a specific way, be sure to define it for your reader.

Think about how everyone knows the definitions of these words: kings; divine; of; right. But if I say “they rule as if they had the divine right of kings”, most people wouldn’t understand that I am talking about the old kings (the real ruling kind, not the “only good for TV” kind) who claimed that their authority came from God Himself.

5. End with a bang

If your wall of text deserves to be read, your last paragraph should be a knockout. Remember that human beings now have very short attention spans, and may need some prodding to actually process what you are saying.

Lazy readers also have a tendency to skip the middle to get to the end.

So, it’s true. Your GP teacher wasn’t wasting your time. Academic principles of writing are useful in ‘real’ life. Now go forth and write! (But go read my whole post again if you skipped the middle. Naughty!)

Why we don’t need to panic over that Temasek Junior College photograph

 

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I understand why a conservative parent would panic if s/he sees notes for students that contain the following statement: “Discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation violates the right for all human beings to be free and equal in dignity and rights.” It is as if schools are “pro-gay” in teaching impressionable young minds.

This was brought up recently in a letter to “All Singapore Stuff” (ASS).

It is unfortunate, but true, that the letter writer has misinterpreted the information found in the photograph. The most sinister part of the picture comes under the “UDHR” field, which may sound like some kind of evil conspiracy if one did not know that it stands for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The notes do not say that homosexuality should be accepted, they only observe that discrimination (unfair or unequal treatment) on the basis of sexual orientation violates the codes found in the UDHR.

(Background information: The UDHR arose partially as a result of the Allied experience in World War II, where Nazi Germany curtailed certain freedoms. In other words, the UDHR arose as a force to fight against the evils that Adolf Hitler put into play. Read more here.)

Whether this discrimination is acceptable, or not, is up to the student to argue. To put it in simpler terms, whether or not homosexuals should be discriminated against (treated unequally or unfairly) is a decision that we leave to a student to decide for himself or herself.

In fact, nothing in the photograph condones or promotes homosexuality. It simply observes facts. At the top of the photograph we find this statement: “Removal of laws that discriminate LGBT community as state recognition is fundamental to the acceptance and integration of the LGBT community.” Ignoring the fact that the sentence structure is a little bit awkward, this statement observes the fact that if a society desired to accept the LGBT community fully (“acceptance and integration”), then the laws that work against that community have to be abolished. The notes even go on to observe that this is a “fairly complicated” thing. There is nothing here that promotes homosexuality, it only states facts.

It is also a fact that some religions (especially the “Abrahamic religions” referenced to in the notes) see homosexuality as a sin, and this fact is presented to students. Again, this is not the promotion of religion but a statement of fact.

Since I do not have the notes in front of me, I do not have the whole picture (pun intended). It is extremely unlikely, but possible, that the notes say “everyone should be homosexual”. In that case, we should be very concerned, because the teacher who makes such a statement may have some underlying mental health issues that we need to deal with in order to protect our students from any harmful behaviour. However, teachers in Singapore, by and large, understand the sensitive nature of these topics, and teach our students so that they can satisfy the requirements of the syllabus:

The syllabus aims to enable candidates to achieve the following outcomes:
2.1 Understand better the world in which they live by fostering a critical awareness of
continuity and change in the human experience
2.2 Appreciate the interrelationship of ideas across disciplines
2.3 Broaden their global outlook while enabling them to remain mindful of shared historical,
social and cultural experiences both within Singapore and regionally
2.4 Develop maturity of thought and apply critical reading and creative thinking skills
2.5 Develop the skills of clear, accurate and effective communication
2.6 Develop the skills of evaluation of arguments and opinions
2.7 Promote extensive and independent reading and research.
(From http://www.seab.gov.sg/aLevel/2014Syllabus/8807_2014.pdf)

When I teach GP, I expect students to think for themselves. The attempt to parrot the teacher’s views often results in disaster, anyway. To do well in GP, a student needs to know about the world s/he lives in (see statement 2.1 above). This includes knowledge about the UDHR, the struggles that the LGBT community faces, and the religious response to the issue.

There is no excuse for ignorance, especially if you are a student. In the academic arena, ignorance means failure. Parents, if you see notes that make you worried, ask your child about them. S/he should be able to explain them to you. If s/he cannot, it may indeed be time to panic.

Teachers do not have an interest in “corrupting” their students. We are more interested in shaping them into individuals who understand the world they live in, and who can think critically to form mature responses.

It means better results, anyway!

 

Edit: “Critical thinking” is not code for “must accept homosexuality”. If a student believes that to be homosexual is a sin, I do not try to change that view. In fact, I encourage the student to speak to his/her pastor or youth leader if s/he does not know why homosexuality can be considered to be a sin. What is more important is that the student understands how to write a proper GP essay. This includes thinking about theocracies, democracies, and the separation (or not) of the church and state.

How to choose a tuition centre for your child (and how NOT to run a tuition centre)

When all tuition centres claim to have “committed” teachers, how is a parent to know who is really telling the truth? Thankfully, there’s a way to get under all the fancy marketing and advertising: win a teacher’s trust, and ask if they are happy working at the centre.

I have heard too many horror stories of tutors in tuition centres being paid peanuts, and contracts with draconian measures built into them. For example, I heard about a particular centre in Singapore that pays its full-time employees a monthly pay just slightly above a part-time employee’s salary — and this is a centre with massively impressive marketing and advertising.

The problem for tutors is obvious — if you are worrying about money too much, you will not be able to put your whole being into your teaching. If you are unhappy with your employer, it makes your job harder.

If you have a motivated employee who is taken care of well, that employee will always tend to be more productive than an unhappy, underpaid and overworked employee. In a tuition centre, this doesn’t just affect the bottom line, it affects students as well.

Of course, parents, you have to be careful how you ask tutors about their pay and working conditions, because these can be sensitive things to talk about. But you can try to win a tutor’s trust by asking a few questions about the way they teach, and if you’re impressed with the answer, you can try saying, “Ah, you really know your stuff, you must be getting paid a lot!”

Watch for the answer. If your child has an unhappy, underpaid, and overworked tutor, chances are that your money is just going towards paying for somebody else’s two-month long holiday.

The Problem With Singlish and Singaporean Education

A fellow tutor-blogger has just written a piece about code-switching and the mastery of languages that anyone intending to master a language should read (that’s all of you, young ones). It jogged a few thoughts about a typical Singaporean student’s experience, and how badly disadvantaged they (we) are.

It is perhaps unfair to blame Singaporeans for speaking poor English. It is horribly rare to have a mathematics or science teacher who can speak “standard” English. Most of the time, they speak Singlish, or some kind of other patois. I remember my computer teacher in ACS(I), who was an effective teacher save for one little thing: it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying.

Things like that happened pretty frequently:
Teacher: (what sounded like) Click in the terminal.
Student: Uh, where in the terminal?
Teacher: (what sounded like) Not the terminal, the ferminal!
Student: What’s a ferminal?
Teacher: (Points at the file menu)
(Bonus points for those able to guess this teacher’s country of origin. Don’t look down on him, though. He taught Visual Basic well enough for the ACS(I) computers to be swamped with a whole host of prank programs, programmed by us students.)

A more Singlish-fied version of the above scene (with fewer misunderstandings) goes on in almost every classroom, every day. Students spend an hour listening to an English teacher, and five hours listening to Singlish in their other classes. Even as an English teacher, I didn’t realise I was pronouncing certain words in a Singaporean (and inaccurate) manner until I paid attention to my recordings as a singer. (You’d be surprised how difficult it is to get the “L” sound in “golden” to sound right. I kept on singing “gowden”.)

Perhaps teachers need to go for grammar or pronunciation classes, but I know that the problem students have with English and code-switching (whether it’s Singlish, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, or whatever language it is we mix with English) will not go away if we don’t change the situation in schools. It’s a massive task for the MOE, but I believe it has to be done.

So, until all teachers and systems become perfect (haha), remember: students are picking up Singlish like sponges in schools.

And that’s the reason for all that horrible code-switching.